The House on Wednesday evening rejected a proposal to allow tax cuts on the wealthy to expire, instead passing an alternative bill to preserve existing tax rates for a year, an act of political theater setting up a contentious post-election fight.
The Republican-controlled House voted 256 to 171 to preserve current tax rates, which were first enacted by President George W. Bush in 2001 and later extended in 2010 for another two years with President Barack Obama's support.
In a separate vote, the House shot down, 170 to 257, a Democratic bill to extend current tax rates past the end of this year only for households earning less than $250,000 per year and individuals earning less than $200,000 per year. This plan has the current backing of the president, and was approved last week by the Senate. Nineteen Democrats joined a unanimous GOP conference on the vote.
The vote virtually ensures that the fate of the expiring tax cuts won't be decided until after the election. Though House GOP leaders wrote Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday to say they "stand ready to bring the House back into session for the purpose of enacting solutions" as it relates to taxes or the automatic defense cuts set for Jan. 1, leaders in both parties have conceded that a truce unlikely.
The House is set to break for recess after Thursday's votes, leaving few legislative days left on the calendar before the election.
Rather, leaders in both parties have generally acknowledged that the fate of the tax cuts are likely to be determined as an outgrowth of the election. That factor has only heightened the political positioning of these votes, which were orchestrated more as a messaging instrument than as a legislative solution.
To that end, the result in the House was the reverse of what happened last week in the Senate, which approved a version of the Democratic bill and rejected the Republican alternative to extend all the expiring tax cuts for a year and require Congress to work on tax reform in the meanwhile.
Senate Republicans dropped procedural objections to the Democratic bill -- which would extend current tax rates past the end of this year only for households earning less than $250,000 per year and individuals earning less than $200,00 per year -- as a way of putting rival lawmakers on record in support of a tax hike heading into an election season.
The Senate voted 51-48 in favor of that proposal, though two retiring senators -- Virginia's Jim Webb, a Democrat, and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats -- sided with Republicans.
President Obama spent much of the day on the campaign trail railing against his Republican opponent's tax plan.
"He's asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut," the president said of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's tax plan during a stop today in Ohio. "In order to afford just one $250,000 tax cut for somebody like Mr. Romney, 125 families like yours would have to pay another $2,000 in taxes each and every year."
Romney has said he supports extending the Bush tax cuts, so as to enable broader tax reforms in the next Congress.
"Keep the taxes in place that we have," he told CNBC's Larry Kudlow last month. "And then I would like to reform our tax code by bringing the rates down across the board for everybody."